Greenhouse Gas-to-Plastic Technology: In with the Bad, Out with the Good!

Products made from bioplastic

Greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide, are emissions released at landfills and wastewater treatment plants (you can read more about greenhouse gases here). A company called Newlight Technologies, LLC is taking potentially harmful greenhouse gases and using them for good – producing bioplastics from methane and CO2.

Newlight Technologies recently announced its seventh patent related to converting greenhouse gases into polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) bioplastics that are biodegradable and sustainable.

newlight technologies llc

Kenton Kimmel, CTO of Newlight, commented about the company’s bright future, saying "Newlight has pioneered the field of applying biotechnology to convert greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide gases into high-performance biodegradable PHA plastics. As our production capacity and sales increase, we will continue to expand the size and scope of our intellectual property holdings, and this seventh patent is an important step on that path.”

Plastics make up 31 million tons of the total municipal waste stream in the U.S., according to the EPA. Only about eight percent of plastic waste is recycled, so most of it ends up in landfills.

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The problem is that petroleum-based plastics can take hundreds of years to decompose. Bioplastics, such as the PHAs produced by Newlight Technologies, are biodegradable, so they decompose much faster at landfills or in nature. This is significant because plastics improperly disposed of in nature, such as the case with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, cause major environmental problems with wildlife, plants and even humans.

Newlight’s most recent patent focuses on producing PHA-based plastics from greenhouse gases in a closed loop process. Essentially, it involves extracting methane or CO2 from landfills, wastewater treatment plants and energy facilities; the gas is then processed to create the PHA-based bioplastic.

Aside from the environmental benefits of bioplastics, Newlight also states its PHA-based plastic polymer material is cheaper and performs better than petroleum-based plastics. Newlight Technologies isn’t the only company hopping aboard the bioplastics bandwagon.

Dr. Molly Morse, chief executive of Mango Materials, won the 2012 Postcode Lottery Green Challenge and took home a hefty $630,000 for doing so. Dr. Morse developed a way to produce poly-hydroxybutryate (PHB) plastics – a type of PHA – using methane gas. The manufacturing process is nearly identical to that of Newlight Technologies.

molly morse wins postcode lottery green challengeImage via Mango Materials

Mango Materials produces bioplastics for things like children’s toys and electronic casing. Dr. Morse told The New York Times “If you had a credit-card-sized piece of this plastic and you flushed it down the toilet, it would be gone in 10 to 14 days.” An equally sized piece of petroleum-based plastic would take decades to decompose in nature, so it’s easy to see the environmental benefit of bioplastics.

Dr. Morse expects the bioplastics industry to skyrocket over the next decade. She points out the bioplastics industry will be worth more than $5 billion worldwide by 2018. It looks as though it won’t be too much longer before petroleum-based plastics are a thing of the past.